Engaging non-player characters are one of the elements that separate role playing games from other genres of games. NPC’s are a powerful tool for the game master. With NPC’s the game master can provide players with objectives, information, challenges to overcome, allies, and visceral emotional experiences. As with everything else in a game, I want the players to have an emotional reaction to the NPCs. The greater the NPC’s importance to the events of the game, the more interesting and emotionally engaging I want to make the character.
The purpose of this post is to tell you the process I go through when I’m creating the NPC’s that are most important to my games. NPC’s that will get only a single appearance don’t get this level of treatment. The important or key NPC’s that I’ve written about in this post are the ones that the players will have the most interest in. I use this process for villains, the most important minions of a villain, and NPCs the players visit frequently for assistance or important information.
The first thing I think about is the purpose this NPC is going to fulfill. The NPC’s purpose will determine a great deal about the rest of the character. Is this NPC a villain, a hero, a resource/ally for the player characters, someone who adds verisimilitude (worldbuilding), or an information source? Once I know what function they are going to have in the setting, I can begin to design the character. Sometimes at the beginning of a campaign I will write down a list of NPC’s I need to design based entirely on their function. The list might be something like like:
- Quest Giver
- Sage/information source
- Minor Villain/threat
- Spy and Betrayer
Note that I’m describing what is it the character going to do. What their action is in terms of what their interaction with the player characters will be.
What Do They Want?
Everybody wants something. We all have basic needs; food, water, shelter, sleep and love are at the top of those lists. Most of us want something besides that; wealth, status, children, a little place to call our own.
“What does this NPC want,” is one of the most important questions I have to answer in the creation process. Understanding what they want and what they are willing to do to get what they want is are key elements to creating interesting characters. The NPC’s objectives are half the formula for conflict. It tells you what is at stake for the NPC and how they might interact with the player characters.
As an NPC achieves a desire, I give them a new one or they may have multiple goals they are trying to achieve concurrently. I have been running a campaign for more than a year and half and one of the major NPC’s has had several desires during that time. He has wanted power, revenge, resources to increase the power that he had previously gained and he wanted to find his girlfriend (that didn’t turn out the way he had hoped).
I do this to make the characters feel more alive. I have never known anyone who got what they wanted and then decided they were perfectly content with what they had and didn’t want something else. Even an ascetic wants something; it might be a bowl of rice and a cup of water before going on to achieve enlightenment.
What Are Their Obstacles?
We all want something but something is blocking us. Our boss is a selfish jerk, the girl we like doesn’t know who we are or her father hates us, the plant we need to make the healing potion is deep in the monster infested swamp and we don’t have a sword or magic.
The NPC wants something but they can’t get it or they have to overcome something to get it. Heroes stand in the way of the villain. The villain stands in the way of peace and prosperity in the kingdom. The obstacle an NPC faces in achieving their objectives is the other half of the formula for conflict. What do they want and what is keeping them from getting it. It could be that very little is standing in their way and that’s where the players come in. If the players want to prevent a villain from getting what he wants, then they have to be that obstacle.
What/Who Are Their Resources?
We all have resources. They are the tools we use to get what we want and overcome our obstacles. That may be a direct interaction where I want a car so I have the resource of money and I spend it to get the car. It may be a resource that indirectly leads to the achievement of my objective. I have money, I pay the adventurers for the herb from the swamp so I can heal my daughter of her illness. What I want is to heal my daughter, the lack of the herb and the monster filled swamp are my obstacles and my coin purse is my resource which helps me to achieve my objective.
With powerful NPC’s or monsters this can be quite a list of resources. Magical items and abilities, minions, weapons, large amounts of money and political allies are all potential resources the NPC might have at hand. The more important the NPC the longer this list may be and more complicated the interactions with the player characters can be. A duke plotting to murder the king and take his place will have a variety of resources in play at a given moment. Spies will be bringing him reports, potential allies who support him may provide troops or coin and his peasants may be busily churning out material to supply the war to come.
Resources may also be “soft” skills the NPC has. They may be able to make a convincing argument which gets the crime boss to go after his rival across town. It may be seduction, negotiation skills, knowledge or empathy.
How Will They React?
Player characters are active in the world doing things. They are the protagonists of the game and will, I assume, interact with some of the NPC’s I create. I can anticipate some of those interactions and jot down notes about how an NPC will react to certain choices from the players. The better I know a group of players, the better I can anticipate their response. I’m not going to get this right 100% of the time but I do manage it frequently.
This has become the heart of my campaigns. I create NPC’s, give them objectives and resources and then set them in motion. This is me playing my characters. I have more of them whereas the players only have one. I don’t write “stories” for the players to experience. I create situations where NPC’s are doing things and the players can respond in what ever way they see fit. Story naturally emerges from those interactions.
Every so often I look over the list of NPC’s, even the ones that the players aren’t interacting with at the moment and ask, “What are they up to?” I make a few bullet notes and move on. This crime lord is consolidating control over a certain neighborhood. That wizard has bound a demon to his will and is using it to perform assassinations of his rivals and so forth. This makes the campaign setting feel alive and bigger than the player characters.
I think a lot of published game materials, and lot of video games, feel like they exist only in the space where the players are interacting, outside of the characters’ interests, everything else is in suspended animation waiting to be triggered by the PC’s coming onto the scene.
In my current campaign, the player characters became cats paws in the plots of the Great Druid, mercenaries in service of a barbarian queen who had usurped a small city state and got mixed up in the inner politics of a wizard’s cabal. I didn’t plan any of that. It was simply a reaction by the NPC’s to the actions of the players. I didn’t script or plan any of it until the players told me what they wanted to do. I merely considered the objectives, resources and decided what the NPC’s would do in response to what the player characters did or did not do.
What Can I Exaggerate?
One way I make memorable characters is by exaggerating something. I don’t describe the bouncer as a big guy, I describe how he has to duck and turn sideways to get through the door of the tavern. He sets his mug up on a cross beam before thumping a patron that’s gotten handsy with a bar maid. He’s huge! Many of the great character actors and comedy improv actors are masterful at this. The enormous weapons and ridiculous armor of many fantasy illustrations is another example.
I exaggerate an accent, a mannerism, appearance, clothing choices, spell selection, or a detail on a weapon. Sometimes I’ll use a random table if I don’t have an idea. I keep a notebook of observations I’ve made of people who stand out to me. Several of the entries are particularly annoying co-workers. I use one of those things I’ve written down for an NPC and then exaggerate it. The characters meet an NPC with bad body odor. Hours later, the smell is lingering on their own clothes and the only way they can get rid of it is to wash. They may not remember the character’s name but they will remember that link boy with horrendous body odor.
Once I have one or two characteristics that I can exaggerate to make the character memorable, I add a few more characteristics to fill the character out and make them a little more three dimensional. The late Great Druid in my campaign didn’t wear the typical druid clothes. He had a lot of magical bling, including a very gaudy cloak that was a cloak of protection. Unlike the other druids he shaved his head and didn’t have a beard. He was overweight and really liked to fish. Often when the PC’s met him, he’d be knee deep in a river and would toss the fish he caught to a massive bear that was the Great Druid’s animal companion. He was rude, surly and very direct in his speech.
Then The Mechanics.
The last thing I do is the mechanics and the stat blocks for the NPC. I want to have a firm idea in my mind or on paper of who the NPC is before I think about how they are represented in the game mechanisms. We don’t experience other people as mathematical quantities or equations. We think about people in terms of how they make us feel. Actually, we think about nearly everything in terms of how it makes us feel. If I want to create a interesting and memorable character, the game mechanisms are a lower level priority.
I will sometimes create game mechanisms specific to a certain NPC. If the game doesn’t have a mechanism that fits, then I’ll create one to fit the things I’m trying exaggerate. That might be a new spell, a magic item, a magic like ability or sometimes I’ll borrow/steal from another game system entirely because it fits that particular character.
What About Backstory?
I have written some about what I call “embedded story” in table top RPG’s. In a nutshell, players may learn “the story of the NPC” by interaction or by asking other NPC’s about the character they are trying to learn something about. Having a backstory for the NPC can help with that if I think it is useful.
I avoid writing long detailed stories about non player characters unless I think it will have some impact on what the players are doing at the table. I will sometimes write a “beat sheet” or a list of events in the character’s life that is current with the chronology of the game. This isn’t a short story about the NPC. It is a chronological bullet list of events in the life of the NPC. It isn’t a bad practice to have an idea of what happened to the NPC or what they have done that’s brought them to the current situation in the game. It isn’t necessary most of the time.
If I know the answers to the questions I’ve outlined above, then I know more than enough about the character to keep the interest of the players. I like creating stories so I will sometimes write a backstory outline but that’s for my own amusement and probably doesn’t add anything to my portrayal of the character at the table.
That’s how I go about creating major NPC’s for my table top role playing games. I hope that you got something out of the post and it helps you create your own memorable characters.
What do they want?
What are their obstacles?
What are their resources?
How will they react?
What can I exaggerate?
What game mechanisms fit this NPC?
Do I need a backstory?
The Alexandrian… his posts on NPC’s have been very helpful to me.
On The Non Player Character by Courtney Campbell of the Hack & Slash Blog is also a very useful resource. I don’t use the social combat system as it is written in the book but I do use many of the concepts and the random tables in the back when I get stuck for an idea.